The Princess and the Fisherman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


In a mystical kingdom far far away, the resourceful and determined Ephesus attempts to fulfill a dangerous quest and win the love of the beautiful Elisa, who tries to save herself from more than a
few enemies and earn his love in return.

Submitted: February 22, 2018

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Submitted: February 22, 2018

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Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, there was a powerful king named Anphus who lived in a gothic castle on the summit of a mountain. The palace had twelve broad, square towers that were both a defensive and decorational aspect and were connected by huge, massive walls made of basalt. Ornate windows were scattered here and there across the walls in a seemingly random pattern, along with asymmetric turrets for archers and artillery. The castle’s scale alone was monumental, overflowing with tall and smooth walls made of stone so smooth it reflected the light of the rising sun, tricking the kingdom’s subjects into thinking the palace was made of gold.

King Anphus himself was not unlike his stone castle, with a large, muscular stoic build, long dark hair, bronze skin and terrifying green eyes. His spirited Princess, Elisa, was imprisoned within the castle’s highest tower to guard her from the world. Like her father, Elisa had dark features but she was more lithe and slender; her eyes were blue and her heart was kind. King Anphus had lost his lovely Queen, Ryinra, years before, but the cause of her death was kept secret. Her portrait hung on the palace wall as a tribute: with her tall, statuesque figure, hair black as ebony and sweet violet eyes, Ryinra's spirit lingered through the halls. Maddened by murder, King Anphus ruled over his small kingdom but his subjects lived in fear of his heinous wrath, as his venomous rage and bloody punishments were infamous. The King beheaded the soldiers he found disgraceful and burned the fields of farmers who could not supply their crops. His soldiers stole away peasant girls who refused their advances and drowned fisherman who did not fill their King’s quota.

One such fisherman was named Ephesus; he had bronze skin, large hands, a chiseled jaw and dark hair that was forever tangled and matted with seawater. His eyes too were blue like the open sea, but they could turn dark and stormy at a moment’s notice. Ephesus was kind, gracious and enjoyed his work, yet he too held disdain for the king. But, the fisherman also harbored a secret desire for adventure, fueled by an intense, deep love for the King’s sequestered daughter.

The two had met briefly long ago, at that time in life when youth is barely grasping at adulthood, stuck between childhood and independence. They’d attended a great festival celebrating Queen Ryinra’s birthday; the village had been filled with lyrical music, sumptuous food and strong wine lasting through the night; lecherous men and promiscuous women had worn colorful masks with lavish costumes and danced wildly in pomp and splendor with their cheers echoing throughout the forest. Ephesus had attended the celebration hoping to compete in a great tournament, pitting wit against brawn in a contest of skill at arms. Unfortunately, the fisherman had had little training in combat and earned only black and blue bruises for his ambition, falling from his horse disgraced in the jousting tournament. That evening, Ephesus was nursing his wounds and standing on a hill far from the festival, overlooking the view. The golden lights were luminous between the treetops as the flags of all the knights blew in the summer wind. The moon was full amidst a dark sky dotted with thousands of stars.

Then, Ephesus saw to his surprise, a young girl clothed as a servant in a plain brown dress and black cloak walk over to him from within the trees. She was short, had dark silken hair and stared just as intensely as he did at the view; but she had striking luminous blue eyes, which glowed as she smiled.

“Hello.” Ephesus said. He smiled at her with crooked teeth, which had been knocked free by his own horse.

“Hello.” Elisa replied. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s nothing.” Ephesus slapped a cold steak on his blackened eye and sighed.

“At least you made it out ok.” Elisa said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ephesus.” he replied. “I live in the village. My father is...was, a fisherman. What’s your name?”

“My name is...Margaery.” the girl replied. “I live out in the fields. My family tends the sheep.”

The two talked back and forth for awhile, looking out beyond the hills, hearing the echoes of the cheering crowds and festive music. Then, Elisa turned towards Ephesus and winced at the sight of his eye.




 

“I’m sorry you were hurt. I’ve always hated these tournaments.”

“Why?” Ephesus interjected. “The men ride astride their horses, charging into battle with swords drawn and people cheering and the ladies throwing flowers at him if he wins. Sounds great to me.”

“I suppose, but those men have a choice.” Elisa replied. “They can do something great. I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Ephesus asked.

Elisa was quiet before she answered. “It’s...well...its my father. He’s forcing me to follow...his way. He says I will grow up to become like him.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“You’ve clearly never met my father. He’s a terrible man. And I can’t disobey him...” She trailed off.

“That’s...that’s awful.” Ephesus replied. “I’m sorry. I understand.”

“Do you?” Elisa told him.

“My father wasn’t so grand either. He taught me his trade, sure, but fishing’s all I ever got to do. He never stopped warning me against adventures.”

“Why?” Elisa sat on the hill, eager to hear that someone else was like her.

“He had a bad experience once and lost my mother. So, my father kept me home. I never even got to scrap against the other boys. That’s why I competed in the tournament today. So I could make something of myself. Surely, your father would understand you wanting that.”

Elisa smiled, her eyes meeting Ephesus’s. Her eyes alone seemed to blot out the stars, until the princess spoke again, turning away.

She sighed. “But I can’t defy him. He’s too...he’s-”

“Who is he?” Ephesus interjected.

Elisa again held her silence, staring up at the stars. But then Ephesus looked and saw Elisa was wearing a gold chain emblazoned with a ruby pendant and jade stones, hidden under her cloak. His eyes bulged, realizing the truth and he knelt before the girl.

“Your Highness! Oh my god! Your father is the-” Ephesus’s lips were stopped as Elisa swooped down putting her hand over his mouth. The two blushed violently before the girl spoke again, looking wildly in all directions.

“Please don’t say anything. Please.” she begged.

“I won’t. I promise. I’m so sorry. “ Ephesus replied. “Princess, I-”

“Stop.” Elisa interjected, her hand still on his chest. “Listen.”

Ephesus did so. The sounds of horses and whistles echoed through the woods and Elisa gasped.

“My father’s guards. I have to go.” She turned away about to leave, but Ephesus grabbed her hand. As they touched under the moonless sky, storm clouds gathered in the distance and thunder rumbled. Elisa gave him a wistful smile and gave him from her pocket a handkerchief embroidered with the royal crest: a falcon flying against a mountain.

“Ephesus, you fought well today. Remember that.” She turned, heading back into the woods.

“Wait!” Ephesus called. “Then, to his shock, a single word shot from his lips: “Elisa!”

Elisa turned, her heart pounding when he said her true name.

He said to her, “M’lady, you do have a choice. Choose...yourself.”

Elisa simply stared at him with those large, luminous blue eyes.

“I hope to see you again, Your Highness.” Ephesus told her.

“And I you.” she softly replied.

As Elisa made her way into the wood, Ephesus called back to her: “I promise, m’lady, your secret is safe with me.”

Elisa only smiled as a twinge of sadness crossed her eyes before disappearing into the night.





 

Years later, Queen Ryinra was dead and the land fell into ruin living in fear of its tyrannical king. As for Ephesus, he spent the next few years fishing and sailing on the lake at sunrise, watching the golden light reflect off the mountain fortress. He believed meeting the princess was fated by the stars and dreamt of the day when he would see her again; when he could save her. He also secretly worked at mastering the art of combat so he would protect what was his. Day after day, the fisherman would spar with the trees, or start fights in the local tavern if he lacked a worthy opponent; at least then, the men would hit back.

One fateful day, the princess secretly sent a servant with a heavy bag of stones to the village, which was on the other side of the mountain. As the entire town gathered in the square, the servant dutifully delivered the message from the maiden: I am desperate for freedom. The King’s days are numbered. Any man who can lift this bag of stones, cross the realm and lay them at my doorstep may wed me.

Now, the mountain that bordered the King’s palace was no mere mountain. It kissed the sky and penetrated the clouds. The base was rooted in the part of the kingdom that saw many storms as well as savage beasts and snowy blizzards. It also lay at the edge of a forest of red trees that bordered a cool and clear river. Here, imprisoned on the other side of the stone castle, the princess awaited her champion. Many a man in the village tried his luck at lifting the heavy bag of stones, with most believing the challenge too great; but not even the town's strongest warrior could lift it off the ground.

Ephesus watched day after day as each man stepped forward to see if he could lift the bag of stones. Even though the chance to see Elisa again tugged at his heart, Ephesus repressed the desire to take the stones, adamant that he was unworthy. What chance did a common fisherman like him have to save a beautiful princess? Then, one day, as yet another man tried to lift the bag, Ephesus stood watching. Sneaking amidst the crowds, the messenger who’d brought the princess’s challenge secretly dropped into Ephesus’s boat a note: Make your choice. Ephesus reached into his pocket and pulled out the princess's handkerchief from so many years ago, staring at the royal crest. Then, as the sun began to set, crowds of drunken noblemen laughed at again another failure. Soon, they noticed Ephesus standing amidst the onlookers. They turned on the common fisherman, jesting that he too had no chance.

“Come on Ephesus! You’re not strong enough to lift that!” the blacksmith Aueros bellowed.

“You couldn’t even tackle me in the bar!” the bookseller Pyrosht screeched.

“No man alive can lift those stones!” Lord Zaveh dictated. His blue eyes had never seen anything like this; and he’d seen many things. The crowds began to barrage Ephesus more and more, even drinking tankards in his name and betting their own coins that he couldn’t grab the bag.

At last, as their voices rose against him, Ephesus’s impulsive anger got the best of him, and he cried out to the townsfolk: “All of you, watch this! I will take the stones!”

As the crowd watched, falling over themselves with laughter, Ephesus stepped forward. A dark storm soon rose over the mountain with the black clouds sweeping across the sky. As the thunder rumbled in the distance, the fisherman effortlessly slung the bag over his shoulders, with his back bent from the weight. The laughter died and all the noble men gaped with open mouths at the fisherman. With his bag of stones on his back, his sack full of bread and his tea kettle and his fishing hook in his hand, Ephesus resolved to make the slow, painful ascent through the woods, over the river and up the mountain towards Princess Elisa. As the sun set in the west, Ephesus crossed into the dark and twisted forest of red trees and was soon lost. The numerous halls of trees twisted into a dizzying labyrinth that tangled and torrented the poor fisherman. His bag of stones weighed heavily on his back and as night fell, Ephesus shook violently against the freezing cold; so he started a fire to keep warm. But as the fire began to glow, a hooded figure wearing a red cloak emerged from the trees.

“Who’s there?” Ephesus called out, his voice echoing in the darkness. There was no reply, but the intruder inched closer. When he unfolded his hands, revealing a stick, Ephesus grabbed his spear and prepared to throw it at the intruder. But then he heard a voice.




 

“Wait!” The voice was breathy and feeble, but full of knowledge.

The figure removed his hood and Ephesus relented.

“Syphus?” Ephesus peered into the trees and the stranger showed himself, revealing a wrinkled dark skinned face, a thick, stubborn brow and warm golden eyes glowing in the fire’s light. The man’s long white beard also tumbled to the forest floor. Ephesus breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re lucky I’m patient, Syphus.” he said, taking the man under his arm to sit towards the fire.

“Oh, my boy, to have patience is one thing. But it is in how you use it that results in good or bad luck.” Syphus sat beside the young man as Ephesus prepared a kettle of tea.

“So, what brings you to the Red Wood, Ephesus?” the bearded imp asked. “Wood sprites? Drunken soldiers? Don’t tell me you saw another mythical being on your boat.”

“How about a quest, Syphus?” Ephesus answered, pouring the old man a cup.

Syphus shook his head with a raised eyebrow. “What are you up to, boy?”

Ephesus grinned. “My friend, you know the princess has sent forth a decree. If a man can cross the wood and bring her this bag of stones, she'll wed him.”

Syphus went to touch the bag but Ephesus only handed him his cup of tea. The old man sat back on his log pondering the thought.

“And you believe you will fulfill her quest?” Syphus questioned, setting aside his cup and instead laying his walking stick across his knees.

“I will do more than that, my friend." Ephesus replied. "The princess also wrote of the King, that his days are numbered. You know of my love for her, that I know her like no one else. And you know I will never give up.”

Ephesus took a long draft of his tea as an owl hooted in the distance. The tea tasted like the soil that rooted the jewelweed that was growing all over the forest floor; he spit it back into his cup.

“The King is a fiend, Syphus.” Ephesus continued. “He’s carved wounds into our home that still haven’t healed. I mean, you remember when the Queen-”

“Yes. I remember.”  Syphus cut his companion off, his eyes suddenly dark. “The Queen…” He sighed, staring into the fire’s glow. The fire crackled in the silence before Ephesus spoke again, his voice low.

“Elisa deserves freedom, Syphus, as does her kingdom. I want to give her what she deserves.”

Syphus sighed. “T’was long ago I knew of your desires, Ephesus. A young girl can set one’s heart ablaze faster than you can spark this fire. But be warned, boy: love leads down a twisted path. Your fire will burn for only so long before-”

But before Syphus could continue, the fire was doused; but not by water. It was vanquished by an Orif, an evil ogre that lived amongst the trees eager to chew on human flesh. The creature stood eight feet tall, with coarse skin and a large pointy head with small ears, smelling of fowl, waste and flesh. Its long bulbous arms were attached to hands that boasted foot long brown claws that could shear a horse’s head clean off and hadn’t been cleaned in years. The ogre had a hunger for human flesh and licked its crusty mouth with a black tongue. Its yellow teeth stuck out from its lower jaw and its beady eyes narrowed on the two men caught in its trap. It lunged and caught the horrified Syphus in his claws. But Syphus smashed his walking stick in the ogre’s face.

“Ephesus! Run!” he shouted to the fisherman. But Ephesus knew he could not leave his friend.

Syphus continued to battle against this fiend, until the orge grabbed his stick and snapped it in two. Ephesus screamed in rage as the orif slashed the old man’s neck, threw him into the trees and dove for the fisherman. But Ephesus grabbed his fishing hook and speared the fiend in the belly. Blood and bile spurted out of the creature’s body and onto the red bark of the trees. Yet, even as its howl pierced the night, the orif continued to fight. The creature’s skin refused to break against steel as its foul breath filled Ephesus’s nose and its filthy claws scraped the hero's arms and torso.




 

The young man was frantic for a way to conquer the beast and grabbed a discarded branch. Ephesus set it ablaze and watched in horror as the monster’s eyes glowed in the light until its entire body was bathed in flame. The smell of burning flesh wafted through the woods until finally, with a harrowing scream, the ogre tumbled lifeless to the forest floor. The fisherman extinguished the flames and caught his breath. With his heart still pounding, Ephesus ran to Syphus’s side, hoping to save him.

“My boy…” Syphus groaned, his heart slowing and his breath no more than a whisper.

“Don’t talk, don’t talk.” Ephesus rebuked, trying to stem the red river flowing out of Syphus’s chest. “You’re going to be alright. Syphus, look at me.”

The old man’s eyes looked up, as his shaking hand reached out. He gripped Ephesus’s hand and placed into it a golden ring set with a jade stone. That small, still strong voice came again.

“A guide, m’boy. The closer you get...the brighter it glows.” he whispered. Then, he held Ephesus’s ear close to his lips, breathing only two more words: “Save her.”

His eyes filling with tears, Ephesus nodded. “Thank you, my friend.”

Syphus smiled and his breath slowed to nothing. Ephesus held him close in the dark night that passed; by dawn’s rise, the young man buried the old under a fallen red tree, inscribing upon the bark: Here lies Syphus the Wise. It took Ephesus the rest of the day to cross the forest, trampling over fallen logs and large roots tangled amongst the soil, covered in crimson leaves; but as a second night fell, he knew this time to keep his guard up. As Ephesus made his way towards the mystical river, Princess Elisa stared at him from a magic mirror inside her golden tower. She was reminded of his nobility all those years ago and was touched by how far he was willing to go. She knew he was going to marry her even if it killed him. Determined, Elisa knew there was more she could do than just watch his journey from her golden prison. She reached down into the secret compartment under her windowsill and again checked it. Good, the swords were still there.

“What are you doing?” a voice sliced into her ear.

Elisa jumped and quickly hid the weapons. Luckily, he hadn’t seen them.

“Well…?” the voice said again.

“Father.” Elisa replied, giving a small curtsy. “I wasn’t expecting you this evening.”

“What were you doing?” he asked again. He stood in the doorway, out of the light of the torches so Elisa could not read his face.

“I was just...looking out the window.”

“Why?” His voice was calm, smooth but as chilling as the blizzard.

“To watch the snow fall. Its beautiful.” Elisa smiled wistfully, terrified.

“Beautiful? You foolish whore. Beauty never lasts.”

The King was about to walk away, but then Elisa spoke again.

“I remembered...Mother used to take me outside to play in it.”

The King stopped in his tracks. “What did you say?”

“I...used to go out. Mother used to...”

He marched into the chamber and slapped her hard across the face. “Never mention the Queen again!. Do you understand?”

Whimpering, Elisa replied, “Yes, Your Majesty.”

The King grabbed the princess by her arm and threw her down, deaf to her scream. “You will never leave this palace. I’d kill you myself before anything outside these walls did.”

Defeated, Princess Elisa mournfully relented, spending a dark, sleepless night staring intently out her tower window, wrapped in a green shawl watching the mountain’s blizzards pile snow on her window.

As the night wore on, Ephesus came upon the cool, clear misty lake that was as still as glass. His breath cooled and his heart slowed to a simple pulse. The air was still and he dared not move. Suddenly, the water began to ripple and sway before him. As the mist parted, a figure rose from the waves. Ephesus stood resolute and fearful, holding his fishing spear aloft.



 

This mythical figure walked towards him in shadow but Ephesus lit a torch, exposing her face. The enchanting creature was Slerina, a cursed siren whose lilting voice led even the strongest sailor to a watery grave. Slerina’s scaly skin was dark blue and her black tangled hair was matted with crabs, fish and seaweed. So graceful did she move that she seemed to be made from the very water that flowed around them. Her dress was decorated with water lilies, the skeletons of slaughtered soldiers and kimono fish. She smiled a gleaming grin at Ephesus and his skin crawled. Her black eyes glinted in the misty river; she was beautifully terrifying.

But the fisherman emboldened his courage and said, “Slerina, I ask to cross.”

Slerina laughed and Ephesus felt his spine shiver as she spoke. “Is that all?”

Her teeth gleamed white in the darkness and her crabs crawled around her skin. She walked slowly around Ephesus, stroking his shoulders and kissing him sweetly.

Ephesus nodded with his jaw clenched, resolute as always.

“I hear you want more than that, Ephesus.” Slerina hissed. “News travels fast in these woods.”

“Enough games, Slerina. Let me pass.”

Slerina hissed. “Come now, Ephesus. Don’t lie to me. You want that golden girl.” She twirled around, mocking the fair princess. “That precious jewel in her glorious golden tower awaiting her handsome champion. You want what all heroes want: to live happily ever after.”  

The sarcasm dripped from her voice like the water that surrounded the two and Ephesus swallowed hard. Slerina was known for her quick hands and stole the magical ring from the fisherman’s pocket before he could even notice. She grinned even as her victim grimaced.

“I will not fall prey to you again, witch.” Ephesus proclaimed, his hands shaking.

“Really? That’s what you said last time.” Slerina hissed, floating closer to him.

Ephesus raised his sword and blocked her way. “Stop. You will not seduce me. I’m a fisherman. I know your tricks. And you will never drag me down there again.

Slerina again smiled and this time showed off her fangs. “Well, fisherman, we’ll see about that…”

Then, Slerina raised her arms and the waters rose around her. Ephesus blocked his sight as he feared she would turn into a hideous creature. But when he raised his eyes, it was Princess Elisa, his golden girl bathed in her luminescent glory, who met his gaze. Ephesus was so overwhelmed by her glowing beauty he dropped his sword at the base of the river. She smiled at him and beckoned the silent Ephesus forward. “Like me more now, Ephesus?”

Ephesus was mute as his lips ached to press against hers. She beckoned to him again and whispered, “You want your happy ending, don’t you? Here I am.”

Ephesus, locked under her spell, walked into the water unwavering towards his supposed true love. Slerina placed her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. Again and again their mouths met and Ephesus heard himself cry out the golden girl’s name: “Elisa”.

“Yes, its me.” Her voice slithered into his ear. “Let’s have some fun...”

Ephesus felt the kiss, desperate to let himself drown in it; but he wrenched himself away.

“No. No…” he whispered. “This isn’t real.”

“And this doesn’t feel real to you?” the creature replied, kissing the hero more aggressively this time, wrapping him in her arms tightly. But Ephesus again pulled out of her slimy grasp.

“I know what real love is. I’ve felt it. And you? You give me nothing.”

“Last time it wasn’t nothing. Come on. Let me love you.” Slerina licked her lips with a forked tongue.

“Love is pleasurable, Slerina, but there is so much more to it.”

“Is there now?” Slerina replied, her smile fading to hatred, turning back into her old self. “How would you know, hero? You’ve never even met her.” She pushed the fisherman away and turned back towards the river.




 

“That’s what you think.” Ephesus shot back. “But my heart guides me. And I will never fall prey to you.”

Slerina hissed, her dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “Well, hero, it looks like you won’t be getting your happy ending.”

Slerina pounced on Ephesus with all her strength and dragged him under the depths of the river. She glued her lips to his as the waters weighed them down, sucking his life away. But Ephesus heart was far stronger than her lips and he fought valiantly, struggling desperately for air. Amidst the struggle the waves spit out the skeletons of dead warriors also pulled into their watery graves.

Suddenly, even as the river closed in, Ephesus spotted a small dagger at the bottom of the sea floor. He went limp for one moment, allowing Slerina to release him, believing him dead. But it was enough, as Ephesus grabbed the dagger from the lake floor and shoved it deep into her chest. The waters churned wildly with blood and salt as Slerina let out a horrific shriek before collapsing beneath the bloody sea. Her true form was now betrayed, as the great beauty was revealed as a haggard, wrinkled old woman with long gray hair and a sunken face. Soaked, Ephesus pulled his golden ring from her wrinkled finger and swam back to the shore, stowing the bloody dagger onto his belt along with his fish hook.

Yet, his mind began playing tricks on him. As Ephesus slept on the forest floor that night, his dreams echoed with questions: Could he really do this? How would he climb the mountain? Would he survive? Would the princess accept his vow or laugh in his face? Ephesus opened his eyes at the dawn’s rise and peered into the golden light. Before him stood a fork in the road that had not existed the night before, with three dirt paths and a tall wooden sign whose names had rubbed off standing in the middle. The path to the right was covered by holly trees and shone through with sunlight and a sense of wonder. The path to the left was dark and misty, with a chilly wind blowing about and the sunlight fighting to pierce the darkness. The path in the middle was bare and grey, with dead yew trees littering the road and the skeletons of dead animals alongside the road. The wall of the crimson redwood trees behind the young man closed against him. No one stood before him but he heard a strange voice echo directly in his ear.

Choose, it said. The voice was calm and smooth but neither male or female.

Ephesus shouted aloud, “Who are you?”

There was no reply, but the trees inched closer and closer towards the hero, with their ancient withered roots slinking across the soil.

The voice came again: Choose, mortal.

He shivered at the sound of their roots crawling against the earth and gazed fervently at each option. Syphus's words came back to the fisherman: Save her. He chose the left path. The path to the left was indeed dark and misty, with a chilly wind blowing, but as Ephesus walked the earth, the sunlight that was fighting to pierce the darkness seemed to get a little bit brighter. As morning wore on, Ephesus arrived at the base of the stone mountain. He could barely see the glint of Princess Elisa’s glowing jewel through the grey clouds as the wind whipped his hair and icy snow blew in his face. Ephesus slung the bag of stones back over himself and took a deep breath. Here was his final obstacle.

Meanwhile, as Ephesus risked life and limb to reach the princess, the princess herself could wait no longer. Elisa knew she had to meet her champion face to face and ensure the two of them would live a happy life together, no matter the cost. She felt incredibly guilty doing nothing while Ephesus risked his life for her. There was no way she was worthy of his love unless she was willing to do the same. But first, she had to conquer the beast that left her beset in her prison. In the dead of night, Princess Elisa picked the lock of her tower door. When the lock clicked, she threw on her sapphire cloak with a crossbow on her back and her sword at her side, racing down the endless steps of her tower facing the stone door between herself and freedom. She opened the creaking wood and stepped delicately outside into the dark corridor.

The light of the torches upon the walls cast eerie shadows that tricked her eyes and fogged her brain. But the young maid was determined to be free. As her footsteps echoed through the castle, Elisa’s memories swirled of her father: his anger, his ridicule, his fists...his words. She shuddered.



 

The princess gripped her bow and turned the corner. She stood before King Anphus’s bedchamber and snuck in without making a sound. In a large canopy bed laden with white sheets lay not the King, but his nude mistress, Meloria, a young chamber maid with bright blonde hair. She stirred in her sleep and her eyes flashed open. But Elisa lay her hand over the girl’s mouth and whispered, “Not a word.”

Meloria’s brown eyes bulged and she nodded.

“Where is he?” Elisa asked, her voice barely audible.

The girl pointed towards the opposite door inside the chamber and Elisa turned. She gripped her crossbow with a rigid hand and stepped forward. The door creaked open and there stood King Anphus, dressed in a black robe. His bright green eyes screened the room like a hawk searching for its prey and froze on his daughter. He snapped his fingers.

“Meloria. Out.” His voice, deep and smooth, echoed into the silence.

Meloria scampered out of the bed and ran down the hall. Elisa stayed still and faced her father.

“Elisa. Relinquish your weapon.” he commanded.

Elisa gripped it instead and was silent.

The King stared her down and said, “This is how you behave? Disobeying me has always been your pleasure. What, do you think I enjoy it?”

“You enjoy giving pain.” Elisa shot back, her voice powerful and smooth. “All my life, you saw me as something to hurt. I never saw the world beyond these walls. But I heard the cries of the men you burned, the weeping of the women you raped, the suffering of the people you rule.

Anphus stiffened in anger.  “Keeping those beneath us in line is the duty of a King. My blades speak more than any proclamation ever could.” Anphus was stoic and his voice was as deep as his contempt for the girl who stood before him.

“Yet here you stand, Father, with your reign poisoned by the blood of thousands and your heart blacker than the stone that built this prison. Have you no sympathy?”

Anphus hissed. “Sympathy promotes weakness, Elisa. But fear? Fear projects strength. Terror keeps those beneath us in line, as it will you.” The King unsheathed a dagger from behind his robes and held it close.

“Me, Father?” Elisa asked, her voice shaking. “You shackle me, slap me, berage me with foul words. You have kept me caged in this palace my entire life.  But now, I will be free.”

Anphus replied, his eyes brimming with macabre malice. “You desire freedom? You fool. The world will swallow you whole outside these walls. Your place is here, by my side. I follow my father’s ways, Elisa. One day, so will you.”

Before the princess could even blink, her father lunged forward and pressed the dagger to his daughter’s throat. Elisa’s breath was caught in her chest; his arms tightened around her and he relished the feeling. “One day, you will understand.”

Anphus shoved his daughter and held her down upon the bed. Her crossbow fell but she fought back, turning herself around with her blue irises glowing in fury.

“Go ahead. Kill me.” she hissed. “Just like you killed Mother.”

“Ryinra was weak, Elisa.” Anphus growled in Elisa’s ear. “She never knew her place. Neither do you.” He pressed the knife further into her skin, leaving beads of blood.

“I know my place, Father. It’s right here.”

Elisa was too quick. As the words left her mouth, she wrenched herself from her father’s grasp, grabbed her crossbow and fired. The bolt shot through the air into her father’s chest. He backed into the doorway and dropped his knife, staggering and gasping for breath. Blood spurted from the wound as Elisa reloaded. The King’s fury erupted at last as he slapped his daughter hard across the face again and again. He grabbed her hair and nearly tore it off her scalp; he pierced her side with another dagger and threw her onto the bed once more. But when Elisa drew her sword and slashed his legs, her anguish was unlocked at last.



 

Unable to stop herself, her shrieks cut through the air as her sword did his flesh, reigning with blow after blow upon the monstrous King. Anphus tried to rise but she grabbed an unlit torch and bashed his fists; the smell of burning flesh wafted through the room. He kept screaming nonetheless.“You whore! You will never see the light of day again! I am your father!”

As blood filled his lungs, Elisa simply stood over her father watching his life drained away. “You were right about one thing, Father. I am your daughter.”

The princess shot her bolt again, this time into the King’s screaming mouth. King Anphus’s eyes bulged before he choked on his own blood and fell to the floor, dead. Elisa dropped the crossbow into the dark room without a single backwards glance. As the guards raced after the princess, she climbed down another flight of stairs, threw open the door and relished the cold, crisp air blowing upon her face. With the calls of her father’s soldiers echoing behind her, Elisa began to climb the mountain, her clothes still soaked in her father’s blood, determined to earn her happy ending. Step by step, day after day, Ephesus and Elisa walked across the blistering cold and rainy terrain into darkness looking for each other.

The fisherman came upon the dead skeletons of former princes who’d made this rigorous journey, now torn to pieces by the hungry beasts that lingered. Speaking of those beasts, Elisa heard footsteps behind her. Sinister growling echoed in her ear and she pulled out her sword. Suddenly, savage wolves and bloodthirsty lions leapt out at her, hungry for fresh meat. With her heart pounding, Elisa slashed wildly at the beasts, her voice silenced in fear. The lion’s teeth glinted in the metal and her eyes widened in horror. The snow whirled around the wolves and the princess as she battled her way through the howling beasts. Her black hair froze in the blizzard as the wolves surrounded the girl, ripped her cloak to shreds and she raced into a dark cavern. But the wolves followed her and backed her into a corner. Smelling her father’s blood on her clothes, the wolves pounced closer and chomped achingly at her flesh.

In desperation, with her adrenaline pumping, Elisa shrieked and grabbed her fallen sword. She stabbed one wolf in the neck and the red blood spurted onto her face. But the remaining pack inched even closer. In despair, the princess sawed through her wrist, chopped off her right hand and threw it to the wolves, who hungrily chased after the meat and melted into the white mist. Elisa’s heart burned in her chest, pumping out the hot red blood onto the freezing snow. The ice numbed the pain in her arm and Elisa’s eyes filled with tears. Her head was spinning with images of her father’s body and her eyes glazed over. She started to weep but saw a figure standing before her. Fearful it was her father risen from the grave, Elisa tried to fight, but she passed out. Then, this stranger picked up the young maiden and carried her towards a hidden crevice deeper in the mountain.

Some time later, Elisa awoke disoriented and startled. She sat up and looked around, feeling the warm air surrounding her: she was in another cave, covered by a deerskin blanket lying in front of a scarlet fire. Elisa stared intently at the light and the figure sitting behind it cooking a dead rat. Shadows danced on the wall and Elisa smelled smoke, looking to her left and seeing her savior. It was an old woman, with grey fingernails, a long wrinkled nose, pale skin and silver hair. Her eyes were as dark as night and nearly sunk into her face. Her mouth seemed to hang onto her cheeks if held only by her chin and her hands were skinny, covered in age spots and so tinged with copper Elisa was certain this woman had grown up the daughter of a jewel miner. The stranger smiled to the princess and wrapped herself in her own black cloak made of bearskin. But Elisa drew her dagger anyway.

“Dear princess, do not fear.” the old woman said. “I have saved you. You will be healed.” The woman stoked the fire and started humming.

Elisa blinked and asked, “Am I dead?”
The woman giggled. “No, my dear. Certainly not.” She pulled out a copper kettle and set it on the fire. The liquid began to bubble and Elisa kept staring.

Who are you?” She still kept her dagger at the ready.





 

“Sweet girl, I am Margaretha.” Her voice was quiet, supple and wispy.

Elisa was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever heard of this woman.“Who are you, Margaretha?”

The woman continued to stir the kettle as she spoke. “I have been a prisoner of this cave for many years, hearing the stories men tell and listening to the will of the gods.”  

Margaretha gestured to the ceilings as the fire glowed bright and Elisa gazed fervently at the strange black symbols smeared across the cool mineral. They swayed against the light and danced on the black stone. The old woman stoked the fire again and Elisa slowly relinquished her weapon, realizing this was just an old reclusive woman. She gratefully took the bowl of broth Margaretha gave her; the liquid was warm, red and tasted of carrots. Elisa savored the heat tingling in her throat and felt her strength return almost instantly. She shoved the blanket off her body and sat before the fire.

“Margaretha,  why did you save me?” Elisa questioned.

Margaretha gave her a cold stare. “”Are you not grateful, Princess?”

“Of course I am. I just wondered...why.” Elisa replied.

The old woman was quiet as the wind howled. “I know how to recognize a desperate soul.” she finally replied. Elisa had to admit, this crazy old woman was right.

“Do you believe I should have abandoned you to the wolves?” Margaretha asked.

“Perhaps. After all…” Elisa fell silent, staring into the flame.

“You killed your father.” the old woman replied.

Elisa stared in shock at the aged ruin. “How did you…?”

“The blood on your cloak, Princess. It was king’s blood.” Magirtha held up the now torn cloak. “The gods are known to recognize king’s blood. Blood that runs in your veins.”

“The gods? What do they have to do with me?” Elisa asked.

“They are looking upon you with favor, Princess. They see what you saw, what the whole kingdom saw. Anphus was a dog who needed to be put down. You did the right thing.”

Maybe, Elisa thought.

“You have someone out there searching for you, do you not?” Margaretha grinned at the girl, who nodded with a smile.

“I...yes.” the girl replied. “We met long ago, and I sent out a messenger hoping to be freed from my father. He accepted the challenge and-”

“And you believe you must find him, don’t you?”

Again, Elisa nodded. Then, Margaretha hit her with the real question: “Why?”

Elisa was stunned. An eternity seemed to pass before her lips spoke again.

“I have to follow my heart, Margaretha. He is risking his life at my expense. What am I if I am not willing to do the same?”

“What are you indeed?” the old woman replied. Elisa turned towards the fire, the amber light illuminating her misty blue eyes. She sat there very quiet as her heart beat heavy with fear and trepidation. Magirtha then sat even closer to the girl and placed her hands over Elisa’s chest. The sound was faint at first, but then Elisa heard it: a heartbeat echoing throughout the cave, growing louder and louder.

She told the wise witch in a clear voice: “I’m a woman looking for happiness, Margaretha. What’s wrong with that?”

“You have a great heart, Princess. Full of love and nobility.” the old lady replied. “For that,  I will help you.”

Then, to Elisa’s shock and horror, Magirtha reached out towards the fire and the flames licked her skin. Elisa lunged forward to stop her, but the aged woman hissed and the girl recoiled. The drawings on the walls moved as the earth shook and Magirtha closed her eyes, her lips breaking into a serene smile. She began chanting a strange language before withdrawing her hand from the flames. Her hands glowing with heat and glory, she grasped Elisa’s shaking hand and placed a small object into it.



 

Elisa gazed tenderly at it: a small, glowing red seed. “What shall I do with this?”

Magirtha smiled. “As I said, the gods favor your intentions, Princess. It was no accident you met Ephesus at the festival that day; it was fated by the stars. The gods have kept me here to guide you, but you must not forget your people. They are in need of your wisdom and foresight. If and when you achieve your quest, plant this seed And you will bring to them untold joy.”

Elisa was awed by the gift, but something still troubled her. “If I fulfill my goal, what will happen to you, Magirtha? You cannot leave this mountain.”

“Do not worry for me, my child. I will be at peace knowing you’ve found happiness. The world is a cruel place, where good people suffer through terrible things. But you must live. Ascend this mountain, gaze upon the face of your champion and someday, happiness will be yours. Perhaps one day we will meet again. Farewell.”

In the blink of an eye, Elisa was returned to the mountainside, her amputated arm still slung in cloth and the blizzard still beating her mercilessly. She grasped her gift firmly, more determined that she would unite with her one true love. But as Ephesus and Elisa continued their ascent, their strength began to fail. The cold whipped the fisherman’s bones and the girl’s heart became weak as her cloth blew off her arm and blood began to pump from her appendage. His back cracked under the weight of his stones and her lips turned blue. Through a darkened night, Ephesus crept higher and higher into the sky, his hands shaking as they grasped the bag of stones firmly. Then, standing low against the wind on a high cliff, he saw once more a strange figure in the distance. Tall, dark and twisted, the figure, clearly a male, walked forward, apparently unaware of the blistering cold and flying snow.

“Hello?” Ephesus shouted to the stranger, his voice hissing against the shrieking wind. “Who are you?!” He staggered against the cold.

The stranger walked forward and Ephesus gazed, aghast with wide eyes, taking in this man’s unorthodox appearance: his skin was blue like a cloudless sky but his eyes were a bright effervescent green. He was skinny and had a crooked smile, as well as red tattoos smeared on each eye and silver hoops looped into his nose, pointy ears and lips. He wore tattered clothes, aside from his black cloak and held in his hand a giant wooden staff. He also wore a pair of stag’s antlers on his head and a belt of wolves teeth at his waist. Finally, the stranger wore a pair of boots made from ogre’s skin.

“Who are you?” the fisherman asked again, gathering all his strength simply to look this imp in the eye. The wind began howling indignantly, as the stranger held out his staff to the skies, with the snow obeying his command and the blizzard dying down. Ephesus shivered as the air warmed and he gripped his fishing hook. The stranger smiled his toothy grin at the young man and waved his staff again. A kettle of tea over a blazing fire appeared before them. Grateful, Ephesus dropped to his knees and wrung his hands before the heat. He look up and stared in disbelief at this stranger.

“Who are you?” he asked for a third time.

“Orion.” the lanky lad replied. “Just, call me Orion.”

Ephesus shivered at the heat. “Thank you, Orion.”

Orion sat down on the stone and poured two cups of tea. “Ephesus…” he began.

But Ephesus interrupted. “You know my name? How?” He gulped down the tea. It tasted like figs and burned his throat, but he didn’t care. He then gulped down a second cup, then a third.

The stranger spoke again. “I know many things, young man. But you do not learn.”

“Learn what?”

“Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?” Orion replied.

Ephesus was taken aback. “Excuse me?” His head was pounding trying to make sense of this imp.

Orion’s lips curled into a smile. “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”’

Ephesus was getting annoyed. “What are you playing at, snake?”



 

Orion chuckled. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again. The crown rests upon the King’s head, it falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus stood in anger before this oddity of a man, threatening the riddler with his hook. “Listen, you fool, if you don’t start making sense, I’ll...I’ll…” Ephesus was suddenly lost in thought, caught off guard as his eyes blurred and his mind became foggy. He swayed against the wind nearly fainting.

Orion raised his hand and simply said, “Answer my riddles, fisherman, and I’ll leave you in peace. If you cannot, I will leave you here to freeze and die. And you’ll need what I offer you to reach your prize.”

Ephesus sat back down with his head in his hands, trying to steady himself. “Very well.”

Orion cleared his throat, repeating his line. “Why does the cockatoo crow at the sun and the raven fly at the moon?”

Ephesus thought to himself, This is ridiculous. But he still took a stab at it. “Uh...the cockatoo crows at the sun... because the sun rises. So...the world must...awaken to a new day..”

“Go on.” Orion told him.

Ephesus cleared his throat. “The raven...the raven...he must fly at the moon because...because, well, I would guess for the opposite reason. He flies against the moon...black against white...letting himself know that the world...must end for that day. He realizes that nothing lasts forever.”

Orion nodded. “Now, the next riddle: “Does the sun delight in rain while the moon creates a monsoon?”

Ephesus puzzled over this phrase even longer. “Neither one, I think, enjoys creating...destruction? Nor do they overindulge their creations. They are trying to...keep balance, I think, between themselves...to...ugh...so balance is restored in the world.”

Orion continued. “The snake crawls upon the earth, shedding its skin from death into birth. Yet, when met by a hunter, he is shot and dies. But when that hunter returns for the skin, the snake is alive again.  Why?”

Ephesus nodded. “Reincarnation. Life begets life. The snake lives forever. Life goes on.”

“Yet, the crown resting upon the King’s head, falls to his blood when the knife brings him death.”

Ephesus took nearly a minute to figure out this line. “Power intoxicates all men...whether simple or wealthy. Men drunk with power go mad with it and...and bring their downfall upon themselves.”

Orion smiled. “Ephesus, you climb this mountain for the King’s daughter. No easy feat, and I applaud you. But remember: you will be counted on, depended on, to guide this kingdom, should you succeed. You will rule with her. Not above her. Not below her. As the sun and moon stand side by side, so you must you. Neither of you will be more or less powerful than the other. You will be balanced.”

Ephesus’s heart beat so quickly thinking of the princess he blurted out: “Please, Orion, tell me what I must do.”

Orion drank from his cup of tea. “The world must awaken to a new day, facing its troubles. And with every night they must put those troubles to rest. Trouble will resurface again and again and you must be prepared to strike it down, again and again. Finally, as you said, men drunk with power go mad with it and bring their own downfall upon themselves. Do not let that same fate befall you.”

Orion picked up his staff and stood before the fisherman, holding his staff against the storm. All at once, the winds picked back up again and the snow swirled endlessly around the wizard. The cold that had left the pair suddenly smacked Ephesus in the face as he shook his head in disbelief.

As he vanished, Orion whispered three words to the young hero: “Good luck, fisherman.”

Ephesus again shook his head in disbelief, unsure if what had just occurred had been real or all in his head. Nonetheless, he continued his ascent.




 

Finally, after countless days and nights, Ephesus came to the top of the mountain just as Elisa also reached the summit. Exhausted, disoriented and frostbitten, Ephesus collapsed unconscious into the snow and Elisa passed out at the end of a trail of blood. Echoes of their voices blew on the wind to the other, but due to the blinding blizzard, the lovers were unaware they had fallen right in front of each other.  Then, a cloaked figure swooped down from the heavens and carried the princess and the fisherman over the side of the mount back into the golden palace. As the two began to heal, lying in beds soaked with fever, Ephesus and Elisa slipped in and out of the world day after day, whispering each other’s names and seeing phantasms sway before their eyes. They lay in that twilight mist, on the brink between life and death, for many a dark night. But as the days flew by, the love between them remained strong and soon the two were met by an old friend.

Ephesus awakened from his illness and saw a familiar face standing before him.

“Syphus!” the fisherman cried.

“Yes, my boy.” Syphus replied and embraced his friend.

Ephesus tried to sit up and embrace his old companion, but Syphus held him back under the burgundy covers. Ephesus nevertheless looked around in interest. “What happened?” he asked.

Syphus replied with misty eyes. “You collapsed on the mountain’s summit, Ephesus. I had to bring you here.”

“Where are we?” Ephesus looked around the room, but his head was swimming so badly he could barely stand it. It was a large stone room with one great willow door, torches lit along the walls, a birch canopy bed laden with beige curtains, a copper wash basin and a marble balcony overlooking the view of the northern mountain range. The fireplace crackled to life though the room remained lit only by candlelight. Suddenly, Ephesus’s mission came flooding back to him and his eyes widened. “Is Elisa…?”

“It’s alright. She’s alright. She’s waiting for you.” Syphus continued.

Ephesus broke out into such a shout of joy that even Syphus was startled.

“Why am I here?”

“I brought you to a better place, Ephesus. Somewhere you both could have your happy ending.”

“Wait.” Ephesus told him. “How are you here? You died in the Red Wood!”

“I did.”

“So does that mean...I’m?”

No, Ephesus.” Syphus replied. “We are both very much alive. The gods gave me a second chance, in order to help you.”

Ephesus grinned and embraced his old friend. “They say the gods work in mysterious ways. Thank you.”

Syhpus smiled. “Your father would be proud of you, m’boy.”

Ephesus stared in disbelief. “My father? What are you talking about?”

“Your father, Vykon. We knew each other long ago. And he would be very proud of you.

Ephesus was stunned. “You knew..you knew my father?”

“More than you know.” Syphus stared into the fire, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Didn’t he ever tell you about the magical fish?”

“Sure. He told me how he went fishing, found a golden flounder and it gave him and Mother great wealth. But then Mother grew mad with greed. After she died, my father kept warning me against magic and quests and all that. And I hated him for that.”

“He had good reason, Ephesus. Vykon wanted to protect you. But did not tell you everything.” Syphus replied, still staring into the fire.

“What?”

“That golden fish was not just any fish. It was an enchanted man.”





 

“A man?” Who?”

Syphus simply stared back at Ephesus, smiling wistfully through his white beard with the fire reflecting in his golden eyes.

Ephesus’s eyes bulged, “You...?”

The room seemed to whirl and Ephesus nearly passed out again. But Syphus held him as the young man began slipping back into the darkness. Syphus’s voice echoed as Ephesus fell back into his deep slumber, quietly revealing his past.

“Ephesus, let me tell you a story. Once, there was a very wealthy prince cast under a spell of true love. But the prince’s bride only wanted his great treasures. When he refused, she revealed she was a witch and changed him into a golden fish. So, he spent years swimming around the world until he came to the humble home of a fisherman and his wife. The fisherman was kind, but his wife wished for great wealth. The fish tried to help the kind fisherman, but they both died. As many years passed, the prince grew old and sought out a magical fairy to become human again. When he did, he vowed to care for the fisherman’s young son. The boy grew into a strong, stubborn man and the old wise man was so proud of the son he had raised…”

When Ephesus awoke again, his mind was putting together all that Syphus had revealed to him. As if by magic, the memories of all he had endured came rushing back and tears fell from his eyes as sobs came strangled from his throat. He spent the evening drowning in his own tears until his strength returned and Syphus was able to help him stand again.

Elisa, who slept in a separate chamber, also awoke and was at first unsure of her surroundings. Here, in fact, was her own bedroom: a large granite room with the same great willow door along the same wall, torches lit along the walls, with a cherry canopy bed laden with light blue curtains, a silver wash basin and a marble balcony overlooking the view of the southern mountain range. The fireplace crackled to life though the room remained lit only by candlelight. When at last the princess was and she too saw a good friend.

“Margaretha!” Elisa cried, embracing the old woman.

Margaretha as well explained what had happened on the mountain, but Elisa barely listened.

That is, until she heard this:“Your mother would be proud of you, my dear.”

Elisa laid back on the pillows. “If only I could speak with her.”

“Perhaps I can arrange that.” Margaretha replied. With Elisa looking on in fearful intrigue, the old woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of strange white dust. She began chanting again in a strange language and threw the dust onto the fireplace mantle. A ring of white smoke and light floated upwards towards the portrait of Queen Ryinra. Staring with amazement, Elisa saw that the portrait began to move and stared back at her. Then, it began to speak.

“Hello, my darling.” The Queen’s voice was melodic and lyrical, as if she were a bird.

And Elisa’s eyes rolled back as she passed out cold onto the stone floor. When she awoke again, Elisa was staring at her mother’s portrait once again, though her head was swimming.

“Mother...is this all true?’

“I’m afraid it is, Elisa. I’m so sorry.”

Elisa’s head began to pound, struggling to understand. “How could you-?”

“Please, Elisa. Let me explain.”

Elisa, her eyes filled with tears from the pain, submitted to her mother’s request.

The Queen continued. The portrait glowed brightly and then showed a different image: the queen as a young peasant woman, shearing sheep in a green field; Ryninra continued to speak.

“Years before I became the Queen, I was a shepherdess, tending the herds of Lord Zaveh. I had a talent for singing and the King was enchanted by my voice. Though neither of us loved each other, we were arranged in marriage.”




 

Then, Elisa saw a blue eyed, dark haired man with a strong jaw dressed in a nobleman’s clothing walk into the frame. Ryinra’s voice again spoke. “One night, a month before the wedding, Lord Zaveh visited my hovel in the fields. When he left the next morn, I was devastated. But more so, I was terrified. Had I known my future, I would have perhaps escaped to another realm. But it was too late.”

Elisa stared into the eyes of that man, seeing her own reflected back.“So, Lord Zaveh is…”

“Lord Zaveh is your father.” The Queen confirmed. “But he doesn’t know. And you must never tell anyone.”

“Why?”

The Queen’s violet eyes glinted. “Sometimes it is easier to have people believe a pretty lie than deliver an ugly truth.”

Elisa swallowed. “So, what happened?”

“A month later, I married the King. But he soon revealed himself to be the dog he was.”

“I remember, Mother.”

“I became his, in every way.”

“He used to force you to sing day and night.”

“And you saw I lost my voice forever.” A tear trickled down the Queen’s cheek., but then she smiled  “Yet, when you came into my life, my darling, everything changed. I wanted to give you your best chance. So I tried to escape.”

“So that night…” Elisa’s eyes filled with tears as her throat began closing.

“That night, I put you to bed. I had packed and knew the cover of darkness was my best hope. But when I came into my own chamber that night, Anphus was already there, with a malice in his eyes I had see only once. And right there, I knew. I knew he knew. I tried to run but...the monster was unleashed. His hands closed around my throat and ...and...”

The air was still and Elisa’s head raced with questions. But with her head pounding and her eyes streaming, the girl felt the pull of the darkness on her mind once more. As Elisa fought to fall back into her slumber, she heard the echoes of her mother’s voice: “Be strong, Elisa. Hold onto your true love. I’ll miss you my darling. Farewell.”

More and more days passed until the princess and her beloved were restored to health. On that day, Syphus gave his dearest friend some sage advice.

“Worry not about the past, my son. Instead, look forward to your future. You have fulfilled your goal. And your love is waiting.”

Syphus gestured towards the locked door and Ephesus smiled. Ephesus dressed himself in a chestnut colored tunic with golden accents and a long flowing red cape, eager to finally look into his lover’s eyes once more. He stood before a door as Syphus recited a couplet: “Ephesus, from Earth to the heavens you’ve endured dark times. Now, walk through the door and claim your prize.”

In the next room that day, Elisa was fearful that Ephesus would not accept her as a lesser version of herself, since regaining her hand was impossible. But Margaretha assured the princess her beloved would look with his heart, not his eyes.eager to meet her champion and was dressed in a splendid blue gown and golden circlet. She stood before the same door and smiled at her mother’s portrait.

Then, the old woman gave her a different couplet: “Elisa, from Earth below you have earned heavenly bliss. Now, walk through the door and marry your prince.”

The door was opened and the two entered another room. It was a large stone room with great oak doors, a mahogany canopy bed laden with golden curtains, a brass wash basin and a marble balcony overlooking the view of the easter mountain range. The fireplace crackled to life though the room remained lit only by candlelight. Then, upon seeing each other, the two were thunderstruck. The shaking fisherman bowed before the princess as she smiled with happiness and curtsied in return. The glow of candlelight alone illuminated their faces and Ephesus laid the bag of stones at Elisa’s feet, now changed into rubies and amethysts. Here stood the most grueling test of all.



 

The princess and the fisherman had crossed mysterious boundaries, braved torrentus changes in nature, suffered personal losses and beaten dangerous trials to reach this moment. But now, they had to speak as equals; their hearts had never beaten so quickly.

“It’s been a long time, Ephesus.” Elisa told him, quivering. She could barely speak her heart was pounding so fast. “I’ve...I’ve missed you.”

Ephesus’s mouth was so dry he only smiled. But then his heart skipped a beat and he opened his mouth. “I thought of you everyday, Elisa.”

Elisa timidly asked, “How were you...able to fulfill my quest, my champion?”

With his heart pounding, Ephesus replied, “Your Highness, I carried those stones for you. But they were not stones to me. They were the pebbles I scattered across the water in my boat, hoping one day we could be together. Your forest was only a bridge to your heart...a bridge I had to offer a great sacrifice to cross. But it was the right cost, as I received a just reward.” Ephesus then knelt before Elisa and slipped his golden ring onto her finger. She giggled in delight.

“Elisa, your river was merely a puddle I walked through. This mountain was only one more step towards you...a step I would take ten times more.”

Ephesus rose and asked tenderly, “Princess, why did you want to find me?”

Elisa smiled and replied, “Ephesus, I lost my heart to you the first moment I saw you. If we were meant to be together, I wanted to be worthy of your love. But my determination made me blind and I paid a heavy price.” Elisa glanced down at her severed arm, which Ephesus tenderly held. She looked back at her beloved.

“But I would have gladly lost my head if it meant being with you. We were fated by the stars to be together.  Ephesus, of course I willaccept your love.”

Ephesus and Elisa turned to the door and walked out hand in hand onto the balcony. Looking over the mountains that towered over the world, they both could not stop the past from fading back into their minds. What they had gone through was…unreal.

Ephesus turned to his beloved. “Elisa, I…”

She put her hand on his lips gently. “I know.”

The lovers looked into each other’s eyes. Their pain, their suffering, their sorrow...it began to bubble up inside of them like boiling water. Elisa felt her eyes burn like fire as tears cascaded down her cheeks. Ephesus too felt his stomach tighten into ten thousand knots and his heart being squeezed; he tried to hold things together for his bride. But soon, even the fisherman had to acquiesce to the water that flowed from within. Elisa heaved sobs as her voice became strangled in her throat. Ephesus kept groaning while his fists tightened on his beloved, as if he were afraid she would float away. The warm light embraced them as the lovers held each other in that dimly lit chamber for an eternity. Their tears were for sorrow, for they had truly gone through too much. But as much for sorrow, so also were they for joy. At last, here stood the one person each knew was their beloved. They were soulmates and their hearts were brimming with tears of happiness. As the candles flickered in that dark chamber, night fell and the couple cried themselves into a deep, mercifully dreamless slumber.

The next morning, Elisa was the first to awaken. Her eyes, still heavy from crying, ached to open. She turned to Ephesus, smiled, and placed hr hand in his shoulder. He stirred from sleep and held her fingers, kissing them sweetly.

“Good morning, my love.” the princess whispered.

Ephesus grinned and held her hand in his. “Good morning.”

“Sleep well? I know we’re both exhausted.” Elisa asked.

“Indeed.” Ephesus said. “I could sleep for two hundred years and still need more.”

Suddenly, Ephesus pulled her back into the bed, laughing. Elisa giggled. As he wrapped her in the sheets, Ephesus kissed her nose and she put her arms around him.




 

“I wish we could stay like this forever.” he told her, looking deeply into her eyes.
“As glorious as that sounds, my love, we both have a duty to uphold.” Elisa gently unlocked herself from his embrace, walked behind the screen, pulled her hair back and dressed herself in a deep purple vest. Then, she pulled on dark pants complete with a flared skirt in the back. Ephesus too sighed and finally also dressed; he wore a black vest a flared sleeves and pointed shoulders, dark pants as well and leather boots. He fastened his sword to his hip and stared at himself in the mirror. Then, he remembered what Orion had said to him so long ago.

“You’re right. Our time will come.” he told her. “We must return to the kingdom.”

“But how? Neither of us is fit to climb all the way down the mountain.”

Suddenly, a chilling roar exploded through the air and gusts of wind blew into the chamber. Grabbing Elisa, Ephesus was aghast at what he saw next. Bright obsidian eyes sat high within the creature's long, bony skull, giving it an ominous gaze. Two crystal growths sat atop its head, just above its enormous, pointed ears. Several rows of crystal growths ran down the sides of each of its jaw lines. Its nose was wide and had two narrow, oval nostrils and there was a small crystal growth on its chin. Several rows of large teeth poked out from the side of its mouth and reveal only a fraction of the terror hiding inside. A broad neck ran down from its head and into a narrow body. The top was covered in coarse skin and a row of spikes runs down its spine. Its bottom was covered in curved scales and was colored a slightly darker shade of green than the rest of its body. Four long limbs allowed the creature to stand illustrious and tall. Graceful wings grew starting from just below its shoulders and end at the end of its shoulder blades. The wings were somewhat triangular, with thick skin and eerie bone structures make up most of the wing and jagged edges at the bottom almost gave it a feathered look. The dragon was so green it put emeralds to shame. In the dawning light, its eyes seemed to glow. Syphus himself sat on the creature’s neck, grinning from ear to ear. The dragon flew higher until it landed with a thunderous crash right on top of the very balcony Elisa and her beloved stood. They were both speechless from shock.

Syphus slid down the dragon’s neck and stood before the fisherman, smiling. “I think I can help you get back.”

Ephesus finally remembered he could talk. “Syphus, where did this come from?”

“While you both were being nursed back to health, Margaretha came to me, eager to share what the gods had told her. She spoke of a cave, far to the east, where giant creatures had been born. They were steed, lizard and bird all morphed by gods who’d lost their sanity. They breathed fire forged from within the caves and had a roar that would send a thousand lions running. I traveled to the caves and found him. He took a little time to tame, but eventually I succeeded, and flew him back to you.”

Ephesus asked, “Is it safe for us to ride him back home?”

“Perhaps. If you give him the chance to trust you.”

Ephesus swallowed hard and Elisa stood resolute. “How?”

“Let him touch you. But be warned, dragons are very proud creatures. They make their own choices.”

Syphus stroked the dragons’ face. It made a strange sound, roaring almost like a lion and seemed to smile at him. He climbed back onto its neck and waited.

Ephesus and Elisa looked at each other. “Together?”

“Together.”

The two joined hands and waited. Ephesus stood as still as a statue, afraid to show fear to such a gargantuan being. The dragon reared its shoulders, hoisting itself on its wings at it approached. As it got closer, it opened its massive jaws and roared, with its tongue sticking out and its rows of sharp teeth glinting. The dragon narrowed its eyes at the couple and Syphus sat staring down upon the scene. The dragon walked even closer with its unblinking gaze, sniffing the air, the fear. It bore its rows of teeth with insidious breath, growling. Ephesus then reach up with his left hand, so slowly, and Elisa did the same. Their right hands gripped each other as they both shakingly reached out.



 

Time seemed to stretch as they did so, until Ephesus’s hand gently touched the dragon’s nose. Elisa did the same and the dragon seemed to relax, even growling contently at them. Syphus looked on in astonishment and breathed a sigh of relief. He climbed back down and rejoined the two. There was no need for words; his expression said it all.

“Does he have a name?” Elisa asked.

“Not yet.” Syphus replied. “I...I wasn’t sure what would be the right one.”

“How about...Siegfried?” Ephesus responded. “That prince from the north who saved his princess from hellfire?”

Syphus gave him a quizzical look.

“Why not?” Ephesus asked.

Syphus again stared at the dragon. “Very well. If he is to be ridden by one hero, he will be named for another.” The dragon again seemed to smile.

“Now,” Elisa declared, staring into the eyes of her hero. “Let’s go home.”

The trio climbed onto the dragon’s back and he flew off. All at once, Elisa and Ephesus were filled with adrenaline like nothing they had ever experienced before. All other thoughts vanished and they were left with was time. These few seconds were possibly the most amazing seconds they had experienced so far in life. Siegfried leaned forward and flew higher and higher, the gusts of wind shoving his riders back towards the sky. Time seemed to freefall as the dragon flew closer and closer to the village, until he at last touched down. As Ephesus and Elisa stepped foot back on solid ground, there was a massive crowd in the kingdom’s main square, eager to finally lay eyes on their lost princess. After the two reunited with their people, a great rumbling the earth. By the grace of the gods, far off in the distance, the great mountain that had imprisoned the princess for so long shook to its core and crumbled to the earth. With the royal couple no longer separated from those who needed their counsel and support, the townsfolk at last found a new sense of hope as they knew their futures were assured with two balanced rulers. Elisa and Ephesus convened a new Royal Council, promoting Syphus to Grand Advisor and Margaretha as The Royal Priestess, as well as bringing together some of the more worldly townsfolk to help rule the kingdom, excluding Lord Zaher.

Coming together as one realm, the kingdom built a splendid estate for the prince and his bride, with twelve broad, square towers that were connected by huge, massive walls made of redwood pine and poplar decorations. Ivy and ferns grew through the crevices of the old winding stone path, which led directly to the colossal structure. The three story mansion loomed proudly behind iron gates, flanked by rows of proud cherry blossom trees in full bloom. At its threshold stood a delicate marble fountain, the soft gurgling of the clear water melodic as it resonated in the surrounding silence. Tall, large windows added to the overall look of the mansion. The roof was very high and a few large windows let in just enough light to the rooms below the roof. With construction of the mansion complete, at last it came time to celebrate. The mansion had been built with a splendid grand ballroom and now was the perfect time to use it. The marble floor had been painted with an ornate design and the white columns stood along the walls were also decorated with hanging crystal chandeliers and richly coloured carpets that complimented the silk upholstery. The gothic windows glowed with the golden light lit from the candles and the air smelled of sweet apple blossoms and champagne.

As night fell with the warm summer wind blowing, the entire village gathered dressed in splendid gowns and suits full of expectations for their new royal couple. At last, as the moon rose that evening, Prince Ephesus and Princess Elisa walked out of their chambers down a grand staircase. There before Elisa stood her valiant champion in his gleaming silver armor; and before Ephesus stood the beautiful Princess in her glorious white gown. Elisa stretched out her arms to the hero and Ephesus, holding her close, kissed his bride. The heavens burst open and the earth shook to its core. The two grinned as their adoring subjects looked on in joy; the music swooned and the townsfolk cheered.

 

As Princess Elisa and Prince Ephesus whirled around the ballroom together, it seemed their joy was eternal. That night, after the ball ended, the lovers embraced side by side in their bed. The next morning, Ephesus awoke with the dawn and stretched. The air was cool and peaceful as the curtains surrounding their bed glowed in the morning light. Ephesus turned and smiled at his beauty of a princess. She lay with her dark hair sprawled about the pillow with a smile on her face. Softly, he leaned down and kissed Elisa’s cheek, so softly she barely moved. When she awoke, the two dressed and walked to the courtyard to their palace garden. There, they planted the magical red seed from Margaretha’s cave. It grew into a splendid glowing tree with golden leaves that always gave the village a bountiful harvest, and was protected forever by the beautiful dragon, Siegfried. And so, the princess and her fisherman lived happily ever after.

 
 


© Copyright 2018 Mya Maola. All rights reserved.

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